It took fifteen steps for her to die.
Fifteen—one for each year of her life before they snuffed it out.
I was supposed to be doing homework. I actually was doing homework, but my phone kept buzzing, so I tapped on the notifications, and there she was.
I never did learn her name. In the reports they would call her “an illegal fifteen-year-old” or “a fifteen-year-old immigrant.” It depended on who was talking.
The underground reporters would also call her brave, defiant, fearless.
And the government news would call her disease-ridden, illegal, criminal.
But as I watched it with my own eyes, I saw that she was just a girl my age. Wearing a faded Mickey Mouse T-shirt and jean shorts that were rolled over on top but still looked like they might fall off her skinny waist. She had somehow gotten over a line of concrete ballasts and the chain-link fence stretching across the burnt-out field between Tijuana and San Diego. That rusty, mangled barricade that was supposed to keep people on the Tijuana side. It stood there as a scar. A reminder. A warning. Its sole purpose was to say
stay out. you don’t belong here.
That girl in the Mickey Mouse shirt had no time for warnings. She had no interest in being intimidated. She looked completely unafraid as she stepped away from the fence, entering the no-man’s-land between Mexico and the United States. The girl was alone, unarmed. Her dark hair was tied back in a bouncy ponytail, and she had a bright red scratch under her left eye. Besides that, her face looked clear, even calm, as she made her way across the dusty strip of scrubland between Tijuana and the wall.
Or really, the Wall. The Great American Wall.
There was nothing great about it. More like grotesque. It blocked out the sky, with fifty-foot-tall reinforced steel slats and thick metal mesh in between. Every few feet there were coils of barbed wire strung across, and on top there was a maze of cables spitting out electricity. The government had spent gazillions of dollars and called in all the Reserves to help build this monstrosity. Sealing us off from the rest of the Americas.
Stop where you are! snarled a voice through a speaker by the Wall.
Technically, that girl wasn’t even on United States soil. But as the President loved to say, America was the greatest nation in the history of greatness, and we needed to do whatever it took to protect our sacred borders. That was why there was a platoon of Border Patrol officers lined up on top of the Wall. Green zombies, I called them. Standing at attention in their olive-colored uniforms with pale, expressionless faces. They had the newest AK-87s strapped to their backs and German shepherds circling at their feet as they stared down that girl.
Because this was their land.
Because it was their duty to preserve and defend the United States of America.
Because whatever this fifteen-year-old intended, walking across in her flip-flops and saggy shorts, she had now become a national threat.
I was so scared and awestruck by that girl’s slow, deliberate steps forward. I could even hear myself panting for her as I watched.
“Mi’ja, what are you doing?” Mami asked me. “If you’re done with your homework, get ready for bed.”
“Wait. You have to see this.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, Mami, you do,” my little brother, Ernie, said, padding in from the bathroom in his pj’s. Last I knew, he was watching soccer on his phone, but he must’ve gotten the same alerts as me. “Something weird is going on at the Wall,” he reported.
Mami hated all the notifications and interruptions from our phones, even if we had saved up and paid for them with our own money. But when Ernie came in and made that announcement, Mami stopped wiping the kitchen counter and marched over to stand behind me at the table.
“¿Qué es eso? I can’t even see. The screen is too small,” she sighed.
Mami loved to tell us how when our family first came to this country, we watched the same show, all together, on a single television. Of course, that was before the government took over the broadcasting system. Before they censored any newscasters who disagreed or said too much, any movies or shows that seemed unpatriotic. If we wanted to see anything honest or original these days, we had to watch someone’s livestream on the dark web. Which is what we were doing now. The three of us pressed our heads together, watching the image blink in and out because of the poor connection. The camera panned around, showing faces caught between hope and panic.
“I don’t like this,” Ernie said. I didn’t either, but we couldn’t turn away from the screen. We couldn’t move. We could only gape at this staticky footage as that gutsy girl planted each foot down—one, two, three.
There were shouts from the crowd of people in Tijuana gathering behind the barricade:
¿Qué estás haciendo? ¡Cuidado!
An airhorn blasted. Another green zombie shouted through the speakers:
Get back behind the fence! he bellowed. You are not permitted on US soil. We repeat, you are not permitted on US soil!
The girl paused and raised both of her hands in the air to show that she meant no harm. She squinted into the bright West Coast sun with a sort of half grin. Her arms were loose and gawky. I wondered if she was born with this kind of wild bravery or if she’d just already lost too much to care.
She stepped forward again.
“Why’s she doing that?” whispered Ernie. “Why isn’t she listening to them?”
I tried to mumble some sort of response, but my tongue felt too big for my mouth. I flipped to another livestream in Tijuana—they were all filming this girl now. Some from so far away, she looked like a speck creeping across the frame, in between the concrete posts. Others zoomed in so close, I swear I could see the hairs in that girl’s nose. Yes, we were watching her on a screen from thousands of miles away, in the safety of a dusky Vermont evening. But my whole body was trembling for her. I wished I had even a smidge of her courage.
There is no trespassing in the demilitarized zone! the zombies ordered again. We repeat, no trespassing in the demilitarized zone!
“Dios mÍo,” Mami said in a low voice, clicking her tongue. She made the sign of the cross, and I swallowed hard. Mami was as tough as they came, the creases around her eyes holding on to all her worry and pain so that she could always face the world with composure. If she was asking God for help, then this was definitely a moment of truth.
Meanwhile, the girl took another step forward. And another. She looked like she was full-on smiling now. At least, that’s how I want to remember her.
This is your last warning! roared the zombies.
¡Eres un héroe! ¡Cuidado! yelled the crowd behind her in Tijuana. I could hear people chanting from behind the Wall in San Diego. It sounded like they were saying, Let her through! Let her through!
The voices on all sides swelled and lifted her up so she looked like she was floating those last few steps. Eleven, twelve.
I was counting in my head.
She had just put down her flip-flop for the fifteenth time when the ground exploded underneath her. The sudden flares of orange, yellow, and red slashing through her. Blowing her into bits. Turning her into dust.
Everything shuddered around me. I felt like that bomb had just detonated inside my gut, the shock waves rumbling through me. The fierce blast of flames was the sharpest color I’d ever known. And scariest of all, there was no sound. Or, really, there was only the absence of sound. Like the whole world had just been punctured and we had to suck in whatever air was left in one giant gasp, holding it all in for as long as we could.
Ernie was the first one to lose it. “What happened? Where’d she go? How come we can’t see her?” he said, panicking.
“She’s . . . she’s,” I stammered. I didn’t know how to explain what had just happened—to him or to myself. “Mami?”
Mami just stood there, watching the screen, as Ernie and I let a thousand unanswerable questions dribble out of our mouths. We needed to fill all the space between us. To keep talking, because talking was breathing, and breathing was living, and living meant we still existed even if it was in some crazy effed-up world where a fifteen-year-old girl was blown up because she tried to cross the border.
“Mami, did you see what happened?” I begged. When I couldn’t take Mami’s silence anymore, I grabbed her warm wrist and squeezed.
“Sí, claro que sí,” Mami murmured. Seeing Mami this disturbed only made it more horrible, more real. She exhaled slowly, the air whistling through her teeth. Then she clenched her eyes shut, like she was trying to erase what she’d just seen on my screen. “It is a land mine, mi’ja. Like in Colombia.”
“What?” I shouted. As if my anger could change what had just occurred. Although maybe it did, because the picture of the girl in flames went dark. The connection severed.
I flipped to a different livestream again. The first one I found was from someone standing on the San Diego side of the Wall. I heard people wailing and shouting, They killed her! They killed her!
Then I saw a mad rush of bodies, pushing and shoving their way toward the Wall. Hurling themselves at the steel slats, scraping and kicking at the mesh in between.
A stampede of green zombies charged into the fray. It looked like there were just as many of them on the ground in San Diego as there were on top of the Wall. Maybe more. Now they were unleashing their German shepherds on the American side. The canines grunting and snapping.
There was a blast of white.
Whoever was filming our livestream started shaking and running. Shouting, Cover your mouths! Run!
It sounded like the Border Patrol officers on the American side were now launching tear gas canisters at the scrambling crowd in San Diego.
“Dios mÍo,” Mami gasped again.
There were bodies writhing and twisting on the ground. They clawed at each other, desperate for pockets of fresh air. Then there was a thud. All we could see on my phone was the dusty ground—a flood of sneakers, flip-flops, and bare feet running by.
“No!” I pleaded. I wanted to reach through the screen and save whoever had just gone down, but I had to find another feed to see what was happening. I scrolled through image after image. The crowds on both sides of the Wall were multiplying by the second now. Surging with rage and heartache. Shouting into their screens or at the Border Patrol helicopters swooping in and circling overhead.
In Tijuana, there were people scaling the chain-link fence. Tripping over themselves as they charged toward the bits of that broken girl.
¡Era una niña! they wailed. Mothers clutched their children, tears coursing down their cheeks.
In San Diego, there were people banging rocks on the Great Grotesque Wall. Pounding and hammering at the ballasts, like a growing thunder.
No more walls! No more deaths! they yelled. There were thousands of hands grabbing, scratching. Trying to rip apart the steel, the barbed wire, the hatred that went into building the Wall. The green helicopters hovered over them like a venomous cloud.
“What are the helicopters for? Are they gonna hurt more people?” Ernie asked in a tiny voice.
“I don’t think so. No, they cannot,” Mami said, reaching for my phone, maybe to shut it off and protect us from seeing any more. Only, as she did, a new and horrifying sound belted out from my screen.
The helicopters were shooting into the crowds on both sides.
“No!” I screamed.
“Dios mÍo santísimo . . .”
The shrieks and moans were piling on top of each other. It didn’t matter what language they spoke; they were all crying Help! Ernie buried his head in Mami’s chest.
“Wait! What if . . . what if Tía Luna’s there?” I sputtered.
Mami lunged at the kitchen counter to get her phone.
“Todo va estar bien. Tranquilos,” was all she’d say as she dialed her sister’s number.
“Call Tía Luna!” I screamed at my phone. It couldn’t recognize my voice when I was this frantic and screechy, though. So I tried to type in her name, my fingers jerking and stuttering from key to key.
A stale recording came on at the other end of the phone:
Your request cannot be processed at this time. Please hang up and try again.
Mami was pacing across the linoleum, hanging up and trying again. Hanging up and trying again.
“Do you think she’s there?” I asked. “She wouldn’t go there, would she?”
“No. No creo,” Mami said, her face a knot of pain and anger. She put down her phone for a brief moment and clasped her hands together in front of our kitchen window like she was begging the sky to tell her something else.
“I don’t get it,” Ernie whimpered. “What’s going on?”
There were so many shots coming from my screen now. I couldn’t count them anymore. I couldn’t do anything. The gap between us and whatever was going on at the border widening like a giant hole.
Dividing us into here and there.
Before and after.
“We know nothing,” Mami told us. “We don’t know if Tía Luna is there or if . . .”
And then it was all cut off.
Our phones went dark. There was no sound, no image. No connection to whatever was unraveling on the other side of the country. Just a blank screen. We held our breath and waited, pinched with fear.
And then, a few moments later, a new, haunting image flickered on. I’d never seen anything like this being broadcast before. It was a large desk in the middle of a bare room. There were stark gray cinder-block walls behind it, interrupted only by a portrait of the President and an empty wooden chair.
I flipped to another feed, and another. But they were all showing the same thing. The same desk, the same wall, the same portrait.
As if to wipe away everything that had just happened.
As if to wipe us all away.
Copyright © 2020 by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.